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Portable Data Storage: Devices & Types

Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

This lesson will cover portable storage devices from thumb drives to external hard drives. The various types, capacities, and technologies involved will be discussed.

Portable Storage

Computers used to fill up entire rooms. 2 Megabytes was considered an exorbitant amount of storage space. Today, tiny disks store more data than the early computers.

In the computer world, portable storage devices include flash drives, USB drives (thumb drives), external hard drives (sometimes called mini hard drives), and portable CD/DVD-ROM drives. There are also products that can be purchased to turn an internal hard drive into a portable hard drive: These are called enclosures and usually come with a hard case, a plug for the drive, and an external USB cable. Some are externally-powered, but many draw power from USB. So, don't throw away that hard drive from your old computer that crashed!

Flash Storage

flash memory card

Flash storage (memory sticks, SD cards, etc.) are small cards about the size of a stick of gum. They are popular in computers, digital cameras, and MP3 players. The devices are incredibly small, have relatively high storage capacity, and don't draw much power. Memory chips are built into the small cards; the flash storage cards are then inserted into a computer (via an SD slot, which is standard on newer computers and laptops.)

USB Storage

usb flash drive

There are also USB sticks or thumb drives. USB sticks use the same flash memory technology as the flash memory cards, but they have a USB connector built into them. They plug into a computer's USB port; once inserted, the system recognizes it as a valid drive and files can be accessed. Some thumb drives also come with security software installed, so that an end user must enter a password before accessing any data on the device.

One thing to keep in mind: Flash/Thumb drives are sticks of storage space while external/portable hard drives are real hard disks. As such, they have internal moving parts and don't serve well as MP3 players on a long-distance run!

External hard drives

external hard drive

An external hard drive is the hard disk of a computer that is mobile. If you unplugged the internal drive of your laptop, slapped it into a case, and attached a USB cable to it, you would have an external hard drive. Most external hard drives have USB ports while some also have Firewire or Thunderbolt (but may only work on Apple products.) Many hard drives come with an external power source while some draw power from USB connection; sometimes there are two USB wires, one for power and one for data transfer.

Because they are true computer disks, external hard drives can store both files and programs. It is possible to run software, games, and other applications directly from the external drive. This is not possible with a flash/thumb drive.

There are multiple formatting options for external hard drives. Some are PC or Mac/Apple specific, so care is warranted in choosing the correct option.

FAT32 (File Allocation Table)

  • Read/write is possible in both Mac OS and Windows
  • Maximum individual file size is 4GB

NTFS (Windows NT File System)

  • Windows only
  • Largest files size of 16TB

HFS+ (Hierarchical File System; Mac OS Extended)

  • Mac only
  • Unlimited file size

External CD-ROM/DVD-ROM Drives

While flash drives can now hold much more than a DVD-ROM, portable CD drives are useful for use on laptops that may not have an internal CD-ROM drive.

Storage capacity

Flash drives have capacities ranging from 512MB up to 32GB or more.

External hard drives range up to 2TB of storage space. Or if you want to pay a few thousand dollars, there are some on the market that store up to 20TB of data!

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